Chris Tellefsen
Editor Chris Tellefsen. Photo: Kent Blocher.

From rap music to survivalists, bullet-proof clothing to porn conventions, you name it and moviemaker Chris Tellefsen has probably edited it. Without the benefit of a film school education, Tellefsen has gone from art student to in-demand film editor with an eclectic resume that includes such diverse titles as Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, Larry Clark’s Kids, Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon, Robert Benton’s The Human Stain, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Bennett Miller’s Capote.

As he finished up work on James Foley’s Perfect Stranger and prepares for two more films with Robert Benton, MM caught up with Tellefsen to talk about his current projects, his place in the independent film movement and why less is always more.

Jennifer Wood (MM):You’ve been working steadily for 20 years now. How did you get your start as an editor?

Chris Tellefsen (CT): It’s been circuitous. I did not go to film school. I was an art student at The Cooper Union (in 1979) studying photography, drawing, painting and sculpture and had always loved film. Any movie I thought would be interesting, I had a hunger to see; I went obsessively to the repertory art houses.

In my last two years of school I took experimental film classes with Bob Breer. There, I made collage films combining unlikely footage. I would put in bits of films I shot with a Bolex from television together with commercials, Spanish soap operas and science programs. I became possessive of the Steenbeck—monopolizing it, excluding all others, working for eight hours at a time or more, discovering the beauty of juxtaposing two pieces of film. I knew then what I wanted to do.

From there I pursued film jobs as best I could with no connections. At that time I had no context or examples to follow as to how to get a job in the film industry. It was as alien as going to the moon. After working in art departments, and eventually editing industrial films, I got to know someone who helped me get a job working for RAI, Italian TV in New York in the ’80s. I cut eccentric little documentary pieces about rap music, survivalists, bullet-proof clothing, a porn convention—any nutty stuff Europeans might like seeing Americans doing at the time. The show was called “Top NY.” That lasted about eight months.

I knew I wanted to do features, so I weaseled myself an assistant position on a funky, low-budget film starring Jackie Mason in the days before his Broadway revival. The film was a disaster. The editor quit—or perhaps was fired.

The producers knew I had some experience editing and offered the footage to me to do a first cut. It was truly dreadful. I did what I could in the short time I had. Then they disappeared. A year later the producers resurfaced with another film—the director of which was the great editor Ralph Rosenblum and Sonia Polonsky was editor. They called me in to re-cut the one I had been working on, this time under Ralph’s supervision. It was a great experience.

I had, of course, read Ralph’s book on the art of editing and seen and admired every film he cut (all Woody Allen’s up to Interiors, Sidney Lumet’s early films, also The Producers and A Thousand Clowns). It was a privilege to get to know Sonia, whose work I was familiar with (Baby It’s You, Matewan). Through Sonia, who had been first assistant on Raging Bull, I managed to get an apprentice job on Marty Scorsese’s The Color of Money, working for the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker. I also worked as a curator on Marty’s massive film archive. But aware that assisting was not really what I wanted to do, I renewed my pursuit of editing jobs and in 1986 cut a short for a small company, Apparatus, made up of recent Brown University graduates Christine Vachon, Todd Haynes and Barry Elsworth. That led to a funky East Village performance art feature, Revolution! and then to Metropolitan.

MM: Was there a particular film that first piqued your interest in the craft?

CT: As a child in West Orange, New Jersey I would watch movies on television after school, specifically the 4:30 movie on Channel 7. For years it was a two-hour slot and then changed to a 90-minute format. I remember lying awake at night thinking about how different the films I had seen previously were in the shorter form—how much the deleted scenes affected the story or the tone of the film.

I have a particular love of British films of the early ’60s (most of which I saw before the age of 12), from kitchen sink dramas like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Billy Liar and Darling to the aggressive editing style of Richard Lester’s films, The Knack …and How to Get It and his musicals, A Hard Day’s Night and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’.

Next I discovered the French New Wave and art films—Buñuel, Truffaut, Fellini, Kubrick. Still I maintained a strong love of classic Hollywood; Wilder, Stevens, Curtiz. As a child, I loved adult content in films and tried to see anything that was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency such as Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Rosemary’s Baby, all the Bergman films and many others too numerous to count. All these films I loved growing up are extremely varied in rhythms, tone and composition—each unique and wonderful.

MM: You’ve amassed such an amazingly eclectic body of work from Metropolitan all the way through to Kids, Flirting with Disaster, Analyze This, The Village and Capote. What do you see as the thread between all of the films you have worked on?

CT: My own sensibility does filter into each particular picture. But mainly, I always want to feel that when I’m finished a film has been fully realized; that no nuance has been ignored. As a film editor I am partly an interpreter, fleshing out the script filtered through the actor’s interpretation of the material, shot through the eye and lens of the cinematographer, led by the vision of the director and bringing all the disparate elements together into a cohesive whole. I seek a truth that emerges from the synergy of collaboration of a group of talented individuals. What I bring is something from everything I have ever learned or loved.

As a cinema artist myself, I seek to crack the mystery of realizing a story into a living breathing film. Again, nothing I know or have done in my life is irrelevant to this task of composing these parts into a whole, shaping the undercurrents, subtexts and tensions that resonate through the particular piece, and never being satisfied until I find what makes this particular film unique.

MM: What is it that attracts you to a project initially?

CT: High-quality scripts, a unique point of view and strong casting. I care a great deal about the fit of all the key players on a particular film. I have worked with many great directors, actors, cinematographers, composers, production designers and costume designers. The best results come from projects where all the key players are drawn to the concept of making this particular movie and throw themselves into it, giving all that they’ve got.

MM: Does the opportunity to tackle something new, to work in a genre you haven’t worked in before, etc. play into your decision at all?

CT: Definitely. I never want to get stale. I’ve never been interested in something easy. Challenge is good. I love contrast. I edited Kids and Blue in the Face simultaneously. The rough contemporary sociological realism of Kids was strangely balanced by the lively humanity of Blue in the Face. I overlapped projects at the end of The People vs. Larry Flynt with Gummo.

Flynt was a highly structured, controlled biopic about real events in a known, living person’s life. I also had 800,000 feet of film to control. Gummo was a mad, abstract free-for-all. There I had to discover a shape in a film in which pretty much half the script was thrown out during filming, to capture a sense of place and time outside of the realm of narrative.

MM: Obviously personal relationships are important, too. You’ve worked with a handful of directors on multiple projects (Whit Stillman, Larry Clark, Milos Forman, Wayne Wang). Why is it important for an editor to forge this kind of lasting relationship with a director? How does working with the same person on separate occasions make for a stronger project?

CT: Long-lasting working relationships with one director are difficult to achieve, unless an editor wants (and can afford) to be wholly committed to that partnership. Projects are not kicking in one after another for most directors. That timing and my availability don’t always mesh. There is also much to say in favor of the energy you get from a new relationship. Navigating a new sensibility can lead to some interesting results.

MM: You played such an important part of the independent film movement in the ’90s, with films like Metropolitan, Kids, Blue in the Face and Flirting with Disaster. And now you’re proving to be a key player in the sort of New Wave of indie films—many of which were nominated for Oscars this year (including Capote, which you edited). How do you think the film industry has changed since you first began making movies? What do you see as the biggest changes how movies are made both by the studios and independently?

CT: The "independent film movement" has evolved into something different from its beginnings. At the Independent Spirit Awards this year, the hostess, Sarah Silverman, ironically said something like, “How great is it to celebrate struggling talent like George Clooney and Ang Lee?” There is an establishment-supported Independent Film Movement now. It’s not about the struggle to make something out of nothing, but takes into account the now-established fact that a certain product has specific limited appeal and the budget must be tailored to the demand. If you have a serious picture, the budget cannot exceed the possible profits. Granted, there are occasional no-budget pics that get picked up, but the studios are very fearful now of unpredictable product.

One of the first films I edited—Metropolitan—was a test case for the just starting-up Fine Line Features. New Line picked it up. A film that was shot in Super 16 and cost $235,000 (including the 35mm blow-up). The domestic gross was $3 million in 1990 and it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. The combination of critical acclaim and reasonable profit made a good argument for a classics division. Since then the classics divisions are moving up into more prominent positions. Now they are more legs of studios, a designated safe place to make risky pictures for relatively little money. They swept the Oscars this year exclusively. So it’s hard to tell how that will affect the studios who aren’t spending a dime on anything risky or without a set audience. Will a hunger for awards make them take more risks? We’ll see. Naturally the smaller pictures that care about quality and originality are rising to the top.

MM: Many years from now, when you sit back and look at the work that you have done, what is the one thing you want to be able to say?

CT: That I wisely contributed my talents to films that have survived the test of time. There is so much forgettable fodder out there and I always make an effort to recognize worthy projects that will strongly benefit from my work.

MM: What is up next for you?

CT: Currently I am editing Perfect Stranger, a dark sexy thriller directed by James Foley starring Halle Berry, Bruce Willis and Giovanni Ribisi. This one is nasty fun and I’m enjoying it. There are superb ensemble performances. These three have a terrifically nuanced dynamic. And after that, if all goes as planned, I will edit, back-to-back, two films for the great Robert Benton, two literary adaptations: Charles Baxter’s contemporary novel The Feast of Love and John O’Hara’s first novel, 1931’s Appointment in Samarra.